Knowing that I was working on a young adult novel about dogs who survive a horrific event and learn to live on their own, my daughter Ally Jane brought me home a copy of Survivors #1: The Empty City, a YA novel about a group of dogs who survive a horrific event and learn to live on their own. Empty City was released in hardcover in August, 2012, and the paperback version came out last week, May 7, on the same day as Survivors #2: A Hidden Enemy.
Empty City received good reviews (it averages 4.5 stars out of 5 on Amazon) and apparently sold well, but the latter doesn’t surprise me, as it’s done by the quartet of authors (writing under the pen name “Erin Hunter”) who cranked out the feline-centric Warriors series. So it might confound you (or sound to you like professional jealousy on my part) when I tell you that Empty City is everything that is wrong with young adult literature today.
Vapid, clichéd, emotionally flat, and predictable, Empty City is like a bad Disney Channel movie. Its protagonist, a stray (or “Lone Dog”) sheltie-retriever named Lucky, wakes up (of course!) locked in a pound, which is shortly thereafter destroyed—along with the rest of the city—by a massive earthquake. Lucky and another dog named Sweet escape as the author handwaves at the deaths of the other animals. Sweet and Lucky split up, and Sweet is not heard from again—so long, Immediately-Superfluous Character #1!
Lucky wanders across the suddenly-deserted city, where the author again handwaves at the hundreds, if not thousands, of implied human deaths. There is a bit where our Plucky Lucky Doggie Hero watches a man die—but oh, look at the time! We need to zoom the plot along, so there’s no dilly-dallying around to elicit any genuine emotion out of such a scene.
Nope, on to other misadventures. Lucky comes to a deserted shopping mall (if there were looters, I don’t remember them) and finds a stray-dog friend (“Old Hunter”) who, at first, refuses to share his food, scavenged from the rubble, with Lucky—until, that is, Lucky just happens to save Old Hunter from electrocution! Of course he does!
Lucky and Old Hunter split up, the latter never to be seen again in the story (so long, Immediately-Superfluous Character #2!), and soon after, Lucky is attacked by foxes intent on stealing his food. But wait! He is rescued in the “nick of time” (of course!) by a pack of pets (“Leashed Dogs”), led by none other than his littermate, Bella, from whom Lucky has been separated since they were puppies. I can’t calculate the astronomical odds of two littermates surviving the earthquake AND finding each other in a large city after years apart AND recognizing each other, but of course it happens in the story, so I suppose Lucky is very well-named.
Lucky takes over the leadership of this pack, each of whom are given names and breeds but no personalities to speak of: I kept having to flip back to the paragraph that introduced them to remind myself that Martha was the Newfoundland and Mickey was the Border Collie, etc., etc. The dogs are forced to live on their own, struggling to survive in and around a city that apparently, the Red Cross, the National Guard, and FEMA have given up on, given the lack of human characters encountered. Because that’s exactly what happens in a natural disaster: people just say, “Eh, never mind” and walk away. Wait—no, they descend on the place by the thousands to put everything back to right.
Of course our Plucky Lucky Doggie Hero saves one of the Leashed Dogs (I can’t remember which) from death, and of course teaches them how to hunt, and of course, the author handwaves at the necessary killing of small, cute rodents for food, because while dogs wouldn’t care, many younger readers probably would, quite deeply. But hey, if you as the writer have already blown off the deaths of OMG-adorable pet doggies and kitties, as well as thousands of people, what’s a fuzzy bunny or two?
Of course the dogs encounter evil Doberman Pinschers with names like Dagger and Blade—ugh. I can’t stomach any more about the plot. How about a sample of some of the splendid prose, from the scene where Lucky and the pack led by his sister introduce themselves? It’s…ummm… Well, judge for yourself.
Horrified, he couldn’t help exclaiming out loud.
“You’re Leashed Dogs!”
They all stared at him, and then one another, bemused.
“Yes?” said the Farm Dog, cocking his head curiously.
“It—well, that explains—I mean, the way you all—” Lucky fell silent, his mind a turmoil. Leashed Dogs. Pampered dogs. Tame, silly, pointless dogs…
They’d let longpaws buckle collars around their necks. They relied on longpaws for food, for fun, for exercise, for a place to sleep. Without their longpaws they were helpless, hopeless… The horror of it was beyond belief. How were Leashed Dogs supposed to survive the end of the world?
How are we, the readers, to survive the clunky euphemism for humans—“longpaws”—and the incessant, amateurish telling of what characters think and feel rather than the more subtle showing? But wait, there’s more:
Wolfing down his own portion, Lucky murmured to Bella
Wait…what? In a novel about dogs, did the author really just throw in a pun about “wolfing” down food? Really? And by the way, when one murmurs, that’s a distinct form of verbal communication that I’m pretty sure dogs are physiologically incapable of performing. They can growl, or bark, or whine, or moan—everyone who’s ever owned a dog knows they do that. But murmur? I’ve lived with dogs for most of my life and I’ve never heard one murmur.
Her expression was filled with conflicting emotion—relief, deep happiness, regret at their long separation—
Hey, here’s more of that “telling”-instead-of-“showing” thing I mentioned, and it’s the hallmark of lazy writing.
—but there was amusement in her voice, too.
Apparently, the dogs really do speak the same way humans do, just like something out of Disney. It’s a wonder that The Tramp from Lady and the Tramp doesn’t show up to reveal himself as Lucky and Bella’s father. No doubt, that comes at the end of Book 2.
It’s not that the premise of Empty City or the Survivors series is horrible; if it were done well, it could be quite compelling. But it’s not. The plot is hackneyed and predictable, the voice is unconvincing (I never felt that I was experiencing the story as perceived by a dog), and the characters are flat and unmemorable. There’s a lot going on in Empty City, but nothing to care about: the emotions (shallow as they may be) are billboarded at you, not drawn out of you.
“Hey, whattya want? It’s just a kids’ story!” one might protest. No, it is not a story so much as it’s a product churned out by a big publishing company with a team of hacks-for-hire, and peddled with some aww-how-cute cover art. Just because something is for kids doesn’t mean it has to be crap. And crap—dog crap—is exactly what we have here. Keep an eye out and don’t step in it.